Testing times for Formula One

As Toro Rosso rules pre-season testing, Sato's yens may sail past common sense. Mosley does belt-tightening -- no pun intended -- with the blessing of FOTA.

Jerez, Spain: A circuit that saw an epic battle to the finish line in 1986 between Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna, last week saw pre-season testing for the 2009 season which starts in Australia in March. Most of the major players were in action but talk now centers on who will fill the two seats at Toro Rosso.

S?bastien Bourdais, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Sebastien Buemi, Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Their race winner and rain meister from Monza, Sebastian Vettel has moved to the mother ship, Red Bull, leaving behind a pair of namesakes to battle it out with Sato-san to grace the grid in Melbourne.

The Sebastien vs Sebastien battle features a young Swiss driver, Buemi, and a Frenchman, Bourdais, who had phenomenal success on the other side of the pond. Buemi also has the blessing of being a Red Bull supported driver for some years now. As quick as he may be, 20-year old Buemi has not been able to clip the wings of another Swiss charger by the name of Romain Grosjean as the two countrymen battled through the junior ranks to knock on Bernie's fiefdom, Formula 1.

In 2007, Buemi scored three wins and placed second behind Grosjean in the F3 Euro Series. In the inaugural GP2 Asia series which finished earlier this year he again played second fiddle to Grosjean with one win and five podium finishes. Buemi made his case by winning two races in the main GP2 series this season to place sixth overall in the championship. Not bad for a rookie especially considering the talent that was on the grid this year.

While Red Bull rushed through Scott Speed to Formula 1 after only one season in GP2, the man from Manteca was winless in the series considered stairway to F1 heaven, but he still survived almost two full seasons in the pinnacle of motorsports. It is very possible that Red Bull may now want to place Buemi in the same pressure cooker situation and find out in one season the simmering affect of their investment.

The investment paid good dividends in testing at Jerez last week.

Sebastien Buemi, Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Photo by xpb.cc.

On the opening day Buemi set 1:18.742 as the fastest time of the day after logging 91 laps. Bourdais' best at 1:19.288 placed him second, he completed 77 laps. Testing was delayed by fog and was later curtailed by afternoon showers.

Buemi's Swiss precision continued on the second day of testing as he again led the timesheets. After 128 laps his best time was 1:18.073 while Sato was second quickest despite doing only 38 laps. He edged out Bourdais by .072 who completed 81 laps.

On the third and final day on Thursday Buemi logged 139 laps and emerged as the fastest driver of the day with a time of 1:17.28 easily edging out potential teammate Takuma Sato. The Japanese driver completed 119 laps with the best time of 1:17.520. Heikki Kovalainen and fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen were next on the timesheets.

Fernando Alonso, now at peace at home with Renault, set the sixth fastest time behind the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa. The double world champion from Spain told Autosport.com "I have already been doing a lot of physical work to get ready for next year and so spending a couple of days in the car this week was another important part of my preparation and has helped me get back up to speed. I'm now looking forward to testing the new car in January."

Sato sans Bourdais: Austrian Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, who recently bought back partner Gerhard Berger's share in the team formerly known as Minardi, has made no secret of the fact that he would like to see one of the drivers bring some money. While Takuma Sato is reported to have a tote bag of over $10m in sponsorship should he get the ride, Bourdais seemed to be bailing out already declaring "I am not a bank."

Takuma Sato, Test Driver, Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Photo by xpb.cc.

It is a sad reflection even at the top of motorsports echelon that a driver with championship credentials on both sides of the Atlantic can see his career drown in a sea of sponsorship.

Yes, Sato won the British Formula 3 championship in 2001 and also triumphed in the prestigious Marlboro Masters of Zandvoort and the end of season Formula 3 classic, the Macau Grand Prix. But in 90 Grand Prix starts he has only one podium finish.

While he is no Yuji Ide, Sato was never able to bother his BAR-Honda teammate Jenson Button. The English driver was third in the drivers' championship in 2004 while Sato was eighth, an amazing 51 points behind his teammate.

Saving Sebastien: Bourdais' entry into Formula 1 was engineered by none other than Nicholas Todt, son of ex-Ferrari Tsar Jean. Winning four consecutive championships in a row is a serious stamp of approval on the talent and intelligence of a racing driver. Bourdais' European championship winning credentials include the 1999 French Formula 3 and the 2002 Formula 3000 series, now re-badged as GP2. In 2007 he raced in the famous 24h race in his hometown, Le Mans, and was placed second in a Peugeot 908. His race winning percentage is just over 25%.

Much is made of Michael Andretti's miscarriage in Formula One, what is lost in the rush to criticism is the man he was teamed against. Perhaps, in another time and driver to deal with Mikey may have salvaged a second season in Formula One.

Bourdais was burdened with the same problem, teaming up in his rookie season with an uber talented driver backed by the full faith and credit of the team's benevolent owner. There is now a campaign by Bourdais' supporters to raise funds to save his F1 career, but it may be too late.

S?bastien Bourdais wins the Lexmark Indy 300 and takes his fourth consecutive Champ Car series title.
Photo by Chris Von Wieldt.

Perhaps, in another time and driver to deal with, Seabass may have salvaged a second season in Formula One.

Formula Won: Captain Mosley and cost cutting agenda harbors in Monte-Carlo. Monaco, glitz and glamour capital of Formula One racing. The crown jewel of the Grand Prix circuit. It was here last week the future of Formula 1 was decided. The sub-prime lending woes originating from the US shores has now engulfed the entire worldwide financial system, forcing one major player, Honda, to focus more on its core business than spending almost $500m for the honor of beating Force India.

Honda's sudden 'sayonara' sent shockwaves through the racing community and there was talk of another manufacturer making the same decision. After the Monaco meeting it now seems we may still have ten teams on the grid in Melbourne next March, subject to a buyer of Honda F1 team being found.

Max Mosley's idea of a standard engine was never going to fly as most teams are now owned by manufacturers. But in this tough economic climate it was in the interest of the sport and all parties involved to get together and let common sense prevail. The cost cutting measures he announced starting with the 2009 season are, in his own words, "the first step towards Formula One saving itself".

These steps include:
. Each team will be allowed to use a maximum of 20 engines per year.
. One engine per three races.
. Maximum RPM reduced to 18,000
. Ban on testing between races during the season.
. No wind tunnel exceeding 60% scale.
. Possible reduction in race distance (based on market research).
. Factory closures for six weeks per year.

Days of blank check spending and twin 24-hour wind tunnel operation are now over.

Just like the tech boom bubble burst, Formula One was left with very few options but to enter survival mode to ensure success and sustainability in the future.

Luca di Montezemolo, man who presides over the most successful team ever and involved from the inception of world championship in 1950, said it best: "The answer we found was beyond all our expectations".